Confucius called them the “king of fragrant plants,” and John Ruskin condemned them as “prurient apparitions.” Across the centuries, orchids have captivated us with their elaborate exoticism, their powerful perfumes, and their sublime seductiveness.
But the disquieting beauty of orchids is an unplanned marvel of evolution, and the story of orchids is as captivating as any novel.
As acclaimed writers Michael Pollan and National Geographic photographer Christian Ziegler spin tales of orchid conquest in Deceptive Beauties: The World of Wild Orchids, we learn how these flowers can survive and thrive in the harshest of environments, from tropical cloud forests to the Arctic, from semi-deserts to rocky mountainsides; how their shapes, colors, and scents are, as Darwin put it, “beautiful contrivances” meant to dupe pollinating male insects in the strangest ways. What other flowers, after all, can mimic the pheromones and even appearance of female insects, so much so that some male bees prefer sex with the orchids over sex with their own kind?
And insects aren’t the only ones to fall for the orchids’ charms. Since the “orchidelirium” of the Victorian era, humans have braved the wilds to search them out and devoted copious amounts of time and money propagating and hybridizing, nurturing and simply gazing at them.
As a young naturalist growing up in southwest Germany, I was enthralled by orchids. To me, they were wondrous, exotic, and rare. When I roamed the early summer hills in search of wildlife and plants, spotting an orchid was always a particular thrill. I had learned where to look for them from a neighbor who was very botanically inclined. He knew the exact places along roadways where little patches of orchids flourished, despite the fact that they had no business being there. He guessed that they had arrived at their particular spot when the road was being built and a bit of limestone soil containing orchid seeds had found its way into the road margins. Since many of these terrestrial orchids need limestone, I would also look for them in sward—sparse, poor meadowland that drains well. Orchids, I soon realized, had flowers that didn’t look like other flowers, and various species of these lovely, delicate works of nature could thrive in almost any environment, from rocky barren sward to shady wetlands.
Epidendrum radicans being pollinateed by a Heliconius butterfly. Panama.
I clearly remember a college field trip to a rolling grassland not far from my university. We had come at exactly the right week in late May and found a good dozen species of pink orchids of the genus Orchis in the south-facing sward. Then we walked up the meadow toward the vast Palatinate Forest, which runs all the way to the border with France, and there in the half-shade of the beeches along the forest edge were the delicate orchids called little white forest birds. Going deeper into the Palatinate, we found swamp orchids by a creek and in dark patches of woodland, brown orchids with none of the chlorophyll that gives most plants their greenness. This variety, called the bird’s-nest orchid, lives off the nutrients it receives from a symbiotic fungus.
No other plant family held quite the same fascination for me as orchids did, maybe because of their relative rareness in northern Europe and certainly because of their unusual appearance—their delicate shapes and configuration, the deep spurs that hide their nectar. They weren’t structured like any other flowers, and they seemed somehow special in a mysterious way.
As the radius of my wanderings expanded, I had the opportunity to see some amazing orchid habitats across Europe. On a backpacking trip into the Swiss Alps I saw orchids in abundance for the first time. I was astonished at the profusion of their blooms across the high mountain meadows, their pink spikes glowing amid dozens of other summer flowers and all of it backdropped by snow-capped peaks. It was breathtaking. There were at least a dozen species in those meadows, including the pyramid orchid that Charles Darwin had studied and written about. An orchid enthusiast himself, Darwin gathered wild orchids near his home in Kent and propagated them. In fact, orchids inspired some of his most critical thinking on natural selection. In his book The Various Contrivances by Which Orchids Are Fertilised by Insects, he explains the co-evolution of insects and orchids and calls them “amongst the most singular and most modified forms in the vegetable kingdom.”
I shared Darwin’s enthusiasm for these “singular” creatures, and on hikes I took into the Pyrenees, southern Italy, and Greece, I discovered a whole new realm of orchid species that I had not seen before. Some of them were oddly shaped, mimicking bees and other insects, while others grew to amazing sizes and had a sweet, honeyed scent.
In graduate school, on botanical research expeditions in the tropics of Asia, Africa, and Panama, I began to realize how narrow the European range of orchids was. Tropical orchids seemed nothing like the ground-based European varieties I had known. Almost all orchid species in the warm rain forests lived as epiphytes, growing from other plants, often high up in the canopy. The shapes, colors, and, in many cases, the scents, were out of this world. Their diversity seemed endless; hardly ever would I find two individuals of the same species.
My experience with orchids mirrors the global patterns of orchid distribution. While temperate areas tend to have fewer species and predominantly terrestrial ones, tropical orchids are much more diverse and most are epiphytic. Central Europe has about 250 species of orchids, yet Panama, barely one-tenth the size, has more than 1,300 known species, with many newly discovered ones being reported every year.
That’s typical of the difference between tropical and temperate places worldwide, and the explanation for this lies deep in the Earth’s past, in its geology and weather patterns.
About Christian Ziegler
Christian Ziegler is a Fellow of The International League of Conservation Photographers, a biologist-turned-photographer specializing in tropical natural history. He is a frequent contributor to National Geographic Magazine, GEO, and Smithsonian, among others. He is an associate for communication with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and a founding fellow of the International League of Conservation photographers.